Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Review: The Black Moth

The Black Moth is Georgette Heyer's first novel, written while she was a teenager.  She uses updated versions of some of the characters in her more popular novel These Old Shades (which is where the title These Old Shades comes from).  In mid-1700s in England, an earl has passed away, and his eldest son must be found to impart the news.  The son, Jack Carstares, however, was disgraced six years ago when he accepted blame that should have been his younger brother's for cheating at cards.  After years abroad, John is now "working" as a highwayman in Surrey.  His younger brother Richard has aged unnaturally since the cheating incident and is married to a temperamental beauty who is likely to bankrupt him and possibly leave him for another man.

And then there is the dangerous and enigmatic Duke of Andover (known as "the Devil") who is pulling all the strings (particularly those attached to the purse).  He falls so deeply in love with the lovely young Diana Beauleigh that he attempts a kidnapping, only to be foiled by Jack Carstares.  This sets off a chain of events that changes everyone's lives in dramatic (and thoroughly entertaining) ways until everyone is sorted out and settled to live happily ever after.

Though I have long been a Georgette Heyer fan, I never read The Black Moth because I don't like These Old Shades.  Why read the precursor to a book I didn't enjoy?  When Sourcebooks offered me this one to review, I accepted because I felt it was time I read Heyer's first book.  I'm glad I did so for my own sake, but as I expected, The Black Moth is nowhere near my favorite Heyer novel.

Heyer writes very authentic to her period, littering her stories with slang and references to gentlemen's clubs and gardens that most modern readers would not understand.  The Black Moth is no exception and the quirks of language (using "an" instead of "if," for example) can make it difficult to establish a reading rhythm.  Also, there are very few characters in this novel with whom it is easy to sympathize.  Jack and Diana are intelligent and funny and beautiful, and some of the minor characters are fun, too, but most of them were hard to like.  And the plot is just so dramatic and swashbuckling that it was easy to believe Heyer wrote this book as a teen.

I appreciated this novel more for the insight it gave me into Heyer's writing than for the story itself.  You can see glimpses of the style Heyer will evoke in all her novels here- the witty manservant, the bumbling inn keeper, the hero who appears to be a fashionable fop but is actually quite intelligent and sharp, the selfish and profligate beauty, the wicked but strangely attractive villain... it's all here!

Another aspect of Heyer's storytelling that I find fascinating is the psychological beliefs held at the time.  For example, the Duke of Andover's whole family spends well beyond their means and has to beg, borrow and steal money from others to meet "debts of honor" (gambling debts).  But they never seem to make any effort to improve themselves, instead blaming it on flaws in the family character and cheerfully continuing to pile on debt after debt.  Heyer strongly believed that some people were born to be rich and some were born to be poor, or that some were born to be Gentlemen and some were born to be Commoners, and that never the two 'ere meet.   It's interesting to see that at play even in her earliest novel.

So while I recommend Georgette Heyer's historicals and mysteries to anyone with a love for witty dialogue, light romance and an authentic setting, I would not recommend starting with The Black Moth.  Rather, read some of her other works first and then come back to this one later to see where she started and how she developed.  It's more fun that way because while the story is entertaining, it's not her best.

Note:  Once again, I take issue with the Sourcebooks cover art.  I have no idea who the two women on the cover are supposed to be, and I don't think they really pertain to the story at all.  As far as I recall, there was never a scene with two ladies reading a letter.

I received this book for free to review.


  1. I must read Heyer one day! I keep saying it, but never doing anything about it

  2. Great review! I really enjoy the works of Georgette Heyer. I didn't know that The Black Moth was written when she was so young. I'll have to read it again now with that in mind. I do like the Sourcebooks covers as art more than as a representation of the story. I also like the quality of the paper and the size of the Sourcebooks editions. I am gradually replacing my old, shabby copies with them.

  3. I've been meaning to pick this one up. I'd heard that it was the first novel and that it had even entered the public domain, you can read it for free online, but if you don't have an e-reader the sourcebook edition is the way to go. Not one for reading a whole novel in front of a computer! Great review!

  4. Anonymous2/09/2010

    Hi Aarti, I have an award for you in my blog, stop by and pick it up :)

  5. Anonymous2/09/2010

    I read The Black Moth about a year ago. Good point about Heyer's class-sense. I like the way they have been putting the paintings on the covers, but the images do often seem to be a bit random, don't they?

  6. Blodeuedd- Yes, you really must!

    Kathy- I like the Sourcebook size a lot, too. I still have my older editions, but I think eventually, the small font size will get to me!

    Bitsy- Yes, The Black Moth is the only Heyer in the public domain, but I suppose the others will slowly start trickling in, too. I am not one for reading on the computer, either.

    Sumanam- Thank you so much for the award :-) Much appreciated!

    Trapunto- Yes, she was very aware of the separation of the classes! And I like the paintings, too, but like you, wish they weren't so very random!

  7. Anonymous2/09/2010

    your review is bang on...I too read The Black Moth and while it's nice, it was almost like a stepping stone for her later works that were far more witty and insightful

  8. I'm going to be reading my first Heyer in March for the Classics Circuit - my mum adores her and is constantly telling me what ones to read and why. She says Arabella is particularly choice, but I'm saving it for a depressing day. :P

  9. I really want to read Heyer. You gave me new inspiration to do so.

  10. Nishitak- Yes, I agree cmpletely.

    Jenny- Ooh, fun! What are you going to read? I like Arabella, but it's not my favorite. My favorite seems to change with my mood, though :-)

    Pam- I hope you do! Let me know if you want suggestions for starting points!

  11. She is one of the writers on my list to read. I like reading from the beginning of an author's work so I will probably pick this one up first.


  12. I've never read any Heyer but I see her all over the blogosphere and am DYING to read her. I actually plan to read The Black Moth first because it's in the public domain and I can read it free on my eReader. It can only get better from there, right?

    Anyways, rocking review, candid as always :-)

  13. I have been reading tons of reviews of Heyer novels since Source Books has started to reissue them. I have found a whole stack that I want to read, but this one sounds like one to avoid, at least until I have a good foundation of knowledge of her other works. I think it's really neat that you can see traits in this this book that later become signature hallmarks of her writing. Even if you didn't totally love this book, it still seems worth the effort to discover so much about Heyer's writing and style. One day soon I will read Heyer!


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